In just two years Carmen Miranda became a mainstay at 20th Century-Fox, mainly working in programmers, the cinematic equivalent of a paint-by-numbers coloring book. Her appearances extended to having a different name but playing Carmen Miranda nonetheless, usually accompanied by a joke describing her character as a “Carmen Miranda type.” Despite its noirish name, Doll Face is another in the line of ’40s Fox musicals with a B-squad of decent actors and a story too meatless for 90-minutes, but pleasant in the short-term.
Mary Elizabeth Carroll (Vivian Blaine) is the Gayety Theater’s “queen of burlecue” under her stage name of Doll Face. But Mary wants to be taken seriously and it’s up to her boyfriend/manager, Mike (Dennis O’Keefe) to come up with a way to make her respectable. His idea: Have Doll Face write an autobiography about her life which will prove how cultured she is. Problems arise when Doll Face’s ghostwriter, Frederick Manley Gerard (Stephen Dunne) ends up falling for his subject.
Unlike The Gang’s All Here (1943) this wasn’t a jovial WWII call to arms, but an attempt to pep people up after the war’s end while maintaining a post-war budget, so gone is the bright Technicolor of the past, replaced with standard – and cheaper – black and white which lets down Miranda fans most of all. The Gang’s All Here’s frivolity wasn’t just in its nightclub frivolity, but in its unleashing of Carmen Miranda’s gaudiness. So while Miranda still wears midriff-baring tops and expressive headware, her musical number is limited to just one performance – “Chico from Porto Rico.” (Miranda was meant to sing another song, “True to the Navy,” but Paramount’s exclusive rights to the song prevented it from being included in the film even though it was filmed and touted in marketing material.) “Chico from Porto Rico” is a typical Miranda performance, but the absence of color and Berkeley’s staging gives off a static quality.
Static is the word that best describes Doll Face. Miranda brings much-needed flair to the film because she’s exotic and different. Then again, it’s doubtful Miranda needed to be in this at all, as evidenced by her disparaging joke critiquing her own characterization. It’s interesting how this precedes Born Yesterday (1950) by four years because Doll Face tells the same story: a young girl with a bad reputation seeks respectability and culture by learning from a well-bred man – just substitute the grand acting of Judy Holliday, William Holden and Broderick Crawford for the likes of O’Keefe, Blaine and Dunne. Little comes from the book twist short of catapulting Doll Face into the big time. Guess this is what happens when people have time to read!
If I hadn’t watched Dennis O’Keefe in Woman on the Run (1950) recently I wouldn’t have recognized him. O’Keefe’s conman schtick reminds me of a modern-day Jason Sudeikis, a jerk who plays off his violence for laughs. Case in point, Mike threatens Mary and grabs her arm when she jokes about leaving him for another man; the harder he tugs, the more she’s apparently in on the joke and turned-on by his abuse. Some of his one-liners are hilarious, although I’m unsure if we’re meant to laugh with him or at him. His declaration that he knows what motherhood is like because he “gave birth to an idea” is wonderful in how ridiculous he sounds, but that could be the point – there aren’t enough witticisms to make a proper determination. When the film heads to the My Favorite Wife (1940) island, with Mary and Frederick stranded, Mike believes she’s been untrue and gets indignant when Mary moves on. Ah, love.
“Doll Face” is the film’s title, but it isn’t necessarily Mary’s story. Mary is the vehicle by which everyone drives to the final show. Vivian Blaine replaced Carole Landis and it’s evident why Landis was the first choice because she looks similar to Alice Faye and Betty Grable, two of Carmen Miranda’s past co-stars. The script doesn’t utilize Doll Face as anything more than a face, so I can’t fault Blaine for being bland (see what I did there?). The worst offender, though, is Dunne who is so utterly boring he makes no impact on the plot, whatsoever; he’s a void with sounds coming out of his mouth.
Perry Como takes a turn acting a singer within the film, and though this isn’t quite like The Gang’s All Here where the plot was written around the routines, the plot still revolves around the performances. Once again we get a ten-minute song before the narrative takes hold, and the entire third act is Perry Como songs that sound the same.
There’s nothing outright unforgivable in Doll Face but a title like that leaves you to assume there’d be some vim and vigor. Instead this is another routine Fox B-film with some catchy jingles but an absence of anything memorable.